More MS news articles for Jan 2002

Germany set to vote on stem cell imports

Jan 22, 2002
By Ned Stafford
FRANKFURT, (Reuters Health)

With the German Parliament scheduled to vote next week on whether to allow the import of embryonic stem cells, the outcome of the controversial issue still remains in doubt.

As the vote approaches, many leaders of Germany's influential churches are raising their voices against imports, while business people and researchers are warning that prohibiting imports would hurt Germany scientifically and economically.

A prime example of the sharp divisions on the issue surfaced over the weekend within the governing coalition headed by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, a member of the SPD party. Schroeder supports the import of embryonic stem cells in principle, but in a Sunday newspaper interview his Justice Minister, Herta Daeubler-Gmelin, revealed that she was opposed on ethical grounds.

Leaders of the major parties in Germany have said they consider the issue a "vote of conscience," and will allow party members to vote according to their personal beliefs.

Pia Teufel, a spokeswoman at the German Research Council (DFG) in Bonn, told Reuters Health that the DFG supports allowing embryonic stem cell imports.

However, she declined to speculate on what the outcome will be January 30, when Parliament is expected to vote on the issue.

"We don't know what will happen," she said. "We really don't know."

Currently in Germany, embryonic stem cell imports are allowed, she said, but then added, "Perhaps it is better to say it is not forbidden. There is no law."

Germany's National Ethics Council, which advises the government on life sciences issues, in November voted 14 to 8 to allow embryonic stem cell imports for research under stringent regulations.

And, if Parliament approves imports, most believe it would do so only with guidelines similar to those proposed by the Ethics Council.

The 14 members of the Ethics Council in favor of imports suggested that stem cells should come from so-called "surplus embryos" produced by in vitro fertilisation but not needed for pregnancies, that couples whose embryos are used must have given approval and must not have been paid money, and that all stem cells imported into Germany must be registered. They also believe that, because the field is changing so rapidly, any law regulating imports should be valid for only 3 years and then reconsidered on the basis of new information.

Teufel, of DFG, said that currently no government-funded research with embryonic stem cells is being done in Germany. It is not known whether any private companies are conducting such research, she said. However, she said she believes that none are.

The DFG, which allocates federal and state money for public research, is a major player in the issue. A Bonn researcher, Prof. Oliver Bruestle, in the summer of 2000 applied for a grant of around 100,000 euros for research that would require the import of embryonic stem cells from an Israeli firm.

Teufel said that when news of the application became public, high-level government officials asked the DFG in May 2001 to postpone a decision until Parliament could debate the issue. Additional postponement requests were made in late summer and in December, she said.

Since Bruestle applied, other research teams have applied for grants to conduct research using embryonic stem cells, she said.

But the DFG will make no more postponements and will make a decision on Bruestle's funding request on January 31, she said.

Asked what the DFG would decide if Parliament approves imports, she declined to answer directly. But she said, "He is a very good scientist."

Copyright © 2002 Reuters Limited